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Presidential panel urges NASA overhaul

Vice President Dick Cheney, second from right, meets with members of the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, led by Chairman Pete Aldridge, second from left, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Wednesday, June 16, 2004. The commission presented a report with its findings to the vice president and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, third from right.David Bohrer - White House / AP
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In an echo of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report last year, the commission appointed by U.S. President George Bush to recommend ways to implement his vision for getting NASA back to the moon and on the way to Mars missions, called today for significant changes in the way NASA is run.

Edward C. (Pete) Aldridge, chairman of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, said the report released today is not a "vote of no confidence" in NASA, but a blueprint for the changes the space agency must embrace if it is to take maximum advantage of the clearest presidential directive its been given in decades.

Speaking at a press conference at George Washington University to release the commission’s report, Aldridge said the commission was convinced that NASA headquarters and the agency’s field centers throughout the country must be streamlined and operated with modern business management practices.

"Changing the cultural nature of people will take a little longer time but that's what we are proposing to do," Aldridge said. "This is a tremendous thing for NASA. For years they didn't have a direction that's been clearly articulated by the president."

The commission’s 60-page report, “A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover,” recommends a significant reduction in the number of departments at NASA headquarters and restructuring the agency’s field centers in the mold of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is run for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

The commission also recommended the creation of a White House office to oversee all of the government’s involvement in space including civil, military and commercial space issues.

The last time such an office existed was during the administration of the current president’s father, George H.W. Bush. From 1989 to 1992 Vice President Dan Quayle oversaw the White House National Space Council, a concept that had also been used during the Eisenhower administration when NASA was created.

John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the commission’s proposal, if adopted by NASA and approved by Congress and the White House would constitute “the most radical transformation of how NASA does business since NASA was created."

No base closings suggested
Logsdon said the most radical of the commission’s recommendations was the proposal to transform NASA field centers into Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). He acknowledged that there would likely be resistance to that idea inside NASA and in the Congress.

“I think it is going to be a hard row to plow,” said Logsdon, who was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Nevertheless, the report’s recommendations were not as radical as some steps that had been recommended during the commission’s public hearings such as closing some NASA facilities by using the same Base Realignment and Closure process that the Pentagon has used to close military bases.

“If we put into our report that NASA should undertake a base realignment and closure activity, the report would have been burned on the first day,” Aldridge said.

Aldridge said he does not expect the transition to FFRDCs to happen right away and also acknowledged that it would take time, particularly to counter political resistance.

Aldridge said that in his view the most important Commission recommendations were the creation of a Space Exploration Steering Council reporting to the White House, the reorganization of NASA headquarters and getting Congress to approve the increase in NASA’s 2005 budget requested by the Bush administration.

Another strong Commission recommendation was getting NASA to turn launch activity that does not involve astronauts over to the private sector.

Aldridge said NASA needs to trust the private sector to launch supplies to the space station and then transform the way it does business with launch providers. He said the high level of government oversight on such launches is not necessary.

Aldridge said he also favors getting NASA to agree to buy data from entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of launching their own scientific spacecraft and to adopt more of what is known in the industry as delivery-on-orbit contracts where the government pays only once the contracted spacecraft has been successfully placed in orbit and starts producing data. He said it was one way to reduce the excessive amount of government oversight.

At the same time Aldridge said NASA needs to maintain strict oversight of human spaceflight activities.

Aldridge told reporters the Commission’s report was delivered to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney at 11 a.m. EDT. He characterized Cheney’s response as positive. After the meeting Aldridge said he thought Cheney would be amenable to a space council, noting that he was familiar with it from first Bush administration when he served as Secretary of Defense.

'Pay-as-you go' budget
Neil deGrasse Tyson, a member of the commission and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, said it is important that Congress understand that the Bush vision is affordable on a pay-as-you go basis.

He noted that during the 1960s when the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were conducted, NASA spent about $17 billion a year in today’s dollars. “We know that we can do great things at that budget level,” he said. “We’re not just pulling this out of the ether and hoping something can happen.”

The commission also recommended that NASA seek the involvement of international partners for the exploration of the moon and Mars and that the United States make the commercialization of space activity one of its top priorities in space through such incentives as tax incentives and prizes for technological innovation.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who attended the press conference, did not speak and declined to answer any questions from reporters.

O’Keefe did issue a statement on NASA’s web site, which read: "The recommendations released today by the commission will influence our work for years to come and will help guide us through a transformation of NASA," O'Keefe said. "The specific details of this transformation will be announced in the days and weeks ahead and will be reflected by foundational changes in our organization and the way we do business.”